As I was writing this meditation on Red Cliffs and Heian period salons; far, far away on another island nation across the galaxy, a certain Mr. Roth was similarly writing about this task of not just existing but of truly living-- and this, he hints, is something that can be meaningful not just in life but in death as well.
Yes, Diderot's Posterity. Historians in particular must appreciate a philosophy where History--replacing God-- becomes the final judge of human actions.
Back to the mysterious Mr. Roth, though.
I don't know much about him-- just that he is young, brilliant and charmingly devoted to his wife. I love to read his essays as they are as beautiful written as they are thoughtful.
I love to read and yet, I know that if Mr. Roth had a salon, I would probably never be admitted into his club. Even take his latest achievement-- I gleaned what I could, but let's face it, the disparities in our educational background pretty much assure that I am missing "the cultural, artistic and psychological associations" in his work, and that-- hence-- truly elegant conversation is most likely out of the question as well. "Cicero before bedtime," and "M. Chateaubriand on his deathbed"-- the associations remain very sadly lost to me.
I could, of course, look everything up on the Internet. I did just that, in fact. Just like I described in Heidegger's translator, all the information was just at my fingertips. Guess what, though? The associations were still lost on me. Why? Well, the answer to that probably lies in this article, by Nicholas Carr, that I linked to in the above post.
Is Google making us stupid? Maybe.
Learning by heart
I talked about memory in my last post. It just so happens I am re-reading Jonathan Spence's Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, about the life and times of 16th century Catholic monk, Matteo Ricci. (That's him at the top shown in a shiny black Ming dynasty "scholar's robe"). He was apparently a man of abundant talents-- from cartology to mathematics, he is also said to have been both interested and open to Chinese culture (in particularly Confucian thought and language).
Spence's book centers around the priests introduction into China of a very useful tool used by Europeans since Classical Greek times. The tool is known as a Memory Palace and is a simple technique that was used to help people remember things. What is to be remembered of course depends much on the person doing the remembering, but I think it is safe to say that in all pre-Internet cultures, remembering certain bits of information (that is learning them by heart) was an important aspect of education and culture. So, Matteo Ricci, for example, sought to remember important scenes from the Bible or battles (like details from the all-important battle of his day, the Battle of Lepanto).
Known as the Method of Location (or Ars Memoriae 記憶術) wiki tells us that for centuries the technique was taught in schools and was an essential part of both rhetoric and dialectics. That is, for the humanties-- in particularly perhaps philosophy and history. Remembering things by location, for some reason, served as an outstanding device for both remembering and recalling. Ricci taught the Chinese this European art.
This is from the wikipedia articke
In ancient advice, loci were physical locations, usually in a familiar large public building, such as a market or a temple. To utilize this method, one walked through the building several times, viewing distinct places within it, in the same order each time. After a few repetitions of this, one should be able to remember and visualize each of the places in order reliably. To memorize a speech, one breaks it up into pieces, each of which is symbolized by vividly imagined objects or symbols. In the mind's eye, one then places each of these images into different loci. They can then be recalled in order by imagining that one is walking through the building again, visiting each of the loci in order, and viewing each of the images that were placed in the loci, thereby recalling each piece of memory or speech in order.
In Spence's book, Ricci's memory palace is described as a grand Western-style palace with the things the Priest wanted to remember symbolized by items in the great rooms and halls.
Also deeply intrigued with the idea, American novelist, Nicole Mones, used the device in her book, A Cup of Light, a novel about the world of Chinese ceramics. The novel's main character is a ceramics expert working for a large auction house like Sotheby's, and uses the technique to remember all the important information necessary to make accurate appraisals of the art.
The expert had "built" her huge memory palace in the form of a Chinese Examination Hall. There was the large courtyard with the main hall, along with hundreds upon hundreds of small cubicals where examinees once spent the several gruelling days (up to 3 days I think?) working on their exams. When the main character Lia would hit upon some aspect of a pot that eluded her, she would go in search of the answer in her own memory.
Doesn't that have a real appeal? A palace in your own mind....A place to wander around remebreing things in? ( 臥遊).
In Mones' novel, Lia would walk down the great courtyard, notice the leaves of the tree moving gently in the wind, perhaps chat a bit with a fellow examinee, she would thendisappear into one of the darkened cubicles to find the precedent she was looking for. Yes, there it is. In year x in the Yuan dynasty, the palace workshops, unable to secure their blue pigments from their usual place in the Western regions, had been forced to buy their cobalt blue from a different Persian source. The color, she recalled had differed slightly during that particular time. Yes, the pot in question was definitely from that reign in the Yuan dynasty,
Khourosh asks what appeals to me so much about all this. Well, I suppose the manner in which people would seek to memorize aspects of their culture that were collectively judged important; so that an essential aspect of the Heian court salon, for example, would have been the internalization of certain poems, fragrances, music, dances and historical anecdotes from both native Japan and continental China. This stress on cultural patrimony is the first aspect.
The second aspect, though, is the manner in which knowledge in internalized. For, I do think the data was stored differently, for example, than how it is stored on the WWW as it was bodily stored within people's minds via imagination.
I wrote in my last post that sometimes Westerners will disparage the focus on rote memorization that one finds in the East. I think it helps to keep in mind, however, that the memorization of facts was only the first stage.
Many never made it past this stage, but, the internalization of knowledge eventually led to imaginative and creative conclusions. So that, for example, the rules and conventions of writing calligraphy are rigorously taught. If a character is not written according to the rules, it is marked "wrong." This rule is upheld much further than elementary school. It is not, however, the end of the road. And, the same can be said of the traditional subjects as well-- in particular medicine, mathematics and philosophy: vast amounts of knowledge were bodily memorized taking years. This, however, was never the final goal. My calligraphy teacher used to tell us that the breaking of calligraphic rules are only beautiful or interesting in those people who have mastered the rules. Never the other way around.
Perhaps one slight difference in this type of learning and that of the West is that in Europe, knowledge was taught systematically (which is actually related to our concept of Law 法), while in the East knowledge was imparted by example (お手本）. So that, in music or dance, for example, in Europe, the basic concepts would be broken down into parts that form the system and these parts would be presented to the students. This is how Adonis is now learning the violin.
Students after mastering the system gained the necessary knowledge. This type of systamtized knowledge is based on, according to one Japanese philosopher I work with, a mind-body division (Descartes). In pre-modern Japanese, according to this philosopher, there was no division between mind and body in the language as "mi" and "karada" 身体 encompassed both mind and body. For that reason, he exaplained, traditional Japanese arts, like dancing and music, were taught by emulation. There was no breaking down of the whole into parts, not real systematization, but rather the pupil just copied over and over again the teachers example. It was, in fact, true bodily learning.
Before I came to Japan, I studied legong dancing in Bali and srimpi in Java and then in Madison. There were no mirrors, no explanations, no breaking things down by part of phrase. It was just me standing behind the teacher and trying to emulate her. My teacher in Madison urged the students to "forget your own body" and just try and "imagine yourself inside the teacher's body doing what the teacher is doing." It was strikingly different from how I was taught ballet. This is precisely how tea cermony or any traditional Japanese art is taught as well.
I wouldn't say either style of learning is better that the other. Just perhaps that the maybe the Chinese style has more emphasis on the character of the person doing the teaching-- as indeed, an Example is never an Example just in their technique, but rather in their bodily Self. Which is to say, the character of the teacher is very important.
Anyway, reading Mr. Roth's latest post, I couldn't help but feel his memory palace and my own memory palace were very different places indeed. In fact, because our Catholic Priest Ricci must have read and actively remembered much the same things as Mr. Roth, even separated by hundreds of years, the two of them would have plenty to talk about. Someday, I will read Cicero. I will re-read Dante and try and remember something of the Fall of the Roman Empire. It remains an empty room in the palace of my mind for now, though.
--written as I was having an imaginary conversation about Spence's book with a certain Qing historian.
Update: Mr. Roth took up my challenge and wrote a Post of his own regarding memory (over at his place). It is yet another beautifully written pensee, which is highly recommended reading-- indeed, something to be committed to memory. Here is a bit:
Man, by remembering, and especially by arranging his memories in the correct order, would not only grow in knowledge: he would actually take the universe into his head and thus become a microcosm, a Godlet, containing multitudes. Even the atheist can take something from this.
Connected to this as well is his older Post here.